Feb 3, 2016
Pablo Larrain, the Chilean poet laureate of cinematic discomfort, is back with a movie about the Catholic church that makes Spotlight seem like a stroll in Disneyland.
After the unusually lighthearted No, the final part of his political trilogy about Chile, Larrain sets his sights on a highly disturbing parable about the unyielding power of the Catholic church. The film takes place in a remote coastal town, in a house that shelters a group of ex-priests and one chillingly devoted nun. They seem good natured enough, almost sitcom material: the one who is devoted to his greyhound, the one who drinks too much, the one who may (conveniently) not have all his marbles in place, the nice, caring nun. Turns out they are basically living under Catholic house arrest. This house is where the church has put them out to pasture for their different sins, or, as we call them in civil society, crimes, all having to do with their abuse of power. As we learned in Spotlight, this is the church's M.O.: when it's not sending criminal priests to devastate unsuspecting parishes, it sequesters them in houses and pays their keep for life.
Life at "the club" is uneventful until people start showing up, as truth is wont to do. First, they have to welcome a new member, another priest, towards whose sins of pederasty they are not charitable. His arrival provokes the appearance of a drifter; a drunk, unhinged, miserable man, who stands outside their window and explains at the top of his lungs what the newbie did to him when he was a boy, sparing no detail. This compels the church to send another visitor, an enforcer priest, who comes to set the house in order.
And this is where things get gnarly. Because Larrain is not interested so much in morality, as in the warped psychology of people who operate under the impression that they have a religious dispensation for their gross abuse of trust. He is interested in exploring a hermetic system so closed and alien to the laws and customs of normal people, that it has its own perverse logic. In this powerful chamber piece, this perverse logic takes the spiraling form of deep, complex, corrupt motivations. The only analogy I can think of, if you take out the loveliness, and replace it with the darkest dark, is the absurdity of Alice In Wonderland. This is a parallel world with its own crazy rules, and the deeper we fall into the rabbit hole, the more disturbing the illogic.
The fact that the priests drink and gamble, and have a firearm in the house, is nothing compared to the mental gymnastics they exercise to absolve themselves of their evil actions, from sexually abusing children to stealing babies from political prisoners (all stuff that happened in real life, in Chile and elsewhere). They may pray and reflect all they want, but they are not truly repentant because none of them really believe they did anything wrong.
It is amazing to witness how entitled and arrogant they are in their little prison of compulsory guilt. They feel they are doing enough penance by sharing a house in the boonies where their only entertainment is watching TV and taking the greyhound to dog races, with which they supplement their meager income. They are beyond salvation, beyond repair. And so is the drunk, who carries the hurt of his abuse like a crushing stone on his shoulders. His, like theirs, is a wasted life.
The young, modern priest who comes to clean house is an intellectual, but he is not what we expect. If you are hoping for someone with a solid sense of virtue, someone who will enlighten and purify the rancid atmosphere, you are in for a surprise. He represents the moral confusion of a church that is stubbornly behind the times and above the law, and that will still do anything to keep its power and stonewall the truth. Like his charges, he will do anything to maintain the status quo. But he finds an incredibly perverse solution to the house and its problems. It may keep you thinking for days.
Larrain's trademark is a merciless penchant for discomfort, scented with whiffs of human debasement as well as of the most corrosive humor. This is his best movie so far. His particular gifts have coalesced into a masterful command of tone and content. The Club is a very intelligent film, splendidly written, directed and acted, that reveals the bizarre illogic of religious malfeasance for the infinite spiral of rot that it is.